The list of inconveniences Roger Federer overcame to capture his 18th Grand Slam singles title was enormous.
He had brought with him his age, a sneering 35. He had brought the six-month hiatus he took to let his left knee lead a normal left-knee life for a while, and from which regeneration would figure to demand time. He brought that Grand Slam drought that stretched back to 2012 and howled with three losses in finals opposite Novak Djokovic, plus five losses in various semifinals including that matter of agony at the brink of mirth last Wimbledon against Milos Raonic.
Then he brought the whole batch of haunts on Sunday into an Australian Open final and up against Rafael Nadal, a fact that piled on other haunts. Go ahead and mix in the 0-8 record against Nadal on Grand Slam surfaces other than grass. Throw in the 0-6 record against Nadal in all Grand Slam tournaments over the last 10 years. There’s no need to tack on Federer’s 11-23 record overall against Nadal, or the 0-3 at the Australian Open, but one might.
Take all of that through a masterful Federer third set with shotmaking that belonged in a museum, then a lapse of a fourth set while Nadal reinvigorated, and into a fifth set of an Australian Open final, the same stage at which Nadal blitzed Federer 6-2 eight years prior, whereupon Federer wept to the crowd and said, “It’s killing me.” Start that fifth set in 2017 with 110 points each and then with Federer serving and Nadal breaking and Nadal looking upgraded and pretty much as impenetrable as he used to be back when he was the defensive Zeus.
Continue through four unsuccessful Federer break points in two service games.
Get to Nadal, 3-1, in the fifth.
Look at the heap of disquiet.
The whole history of the old sport figured to tighten right there, in this final that doubled as both a rebirth of a revered rivalry and a surprise. Clearly Nadal, whose brawling method of play always did figure to tax his body and trim his career, would defy that hypothesis and win a Grand Slam at 30. He would win as a No. 9 seed after a 2016 in which he missed one Grand Slam, lost the first round of another, called off his season in early October and healed a bum wrist. He would win after reaching zero semifinals in his previous 10 Grand Slams.
He would take the most important scoreboard – all-time Grand Slam wins – and tighten it uncomfortably. Federer would have his 17 titles, but now Nadal would have 15 and, if intact, would go streaming into Paris in May with a chance to make it 16 at a French Open he has won merely nine times in life, when most of us never win it once. There was no precedent for him losing to Federer from 3-1 in the fifth, certainly no precedent for him to lose five straight games to do so.
Yet soon, there he was, standing near Federer and Rod Laver for the trophy presentation, his great face filled with great remorse. There he was saying of Federer, via ESPN in the United States, “Just amazing the way he’s playing with such a long time not being on the Tour. It’s very difficult to make that happen.” There was Federer, his lead suddenly 18-14, saying that tennis permits no draws, but saying in praise of Nadal that he would have been “very happy to accept one tonight.”
There he was, after a three-hour, 37-minute epic (6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3), saying curiously to the crowd, “I hope to see you next year. If not, this was a wonderful run here and I can’t be more happy to have won here tonight.”
In between those two moments, between the heap and the happy, came stuff and sights that defied all patterns even if you count Federer as the greatest player ever. Five games. Thirty-eight points. Twenty-six points for Federer. Two points that have a chance to live on in tennis memories: a backhand Federer destroyed to get to break point in Nadal’s service at 3-2, and a great, big gasp of a 26-shot rally with Nadal serving at 3-4, which Federer won by blocking a winning forehand up the line.
From there, he had to overcome still more, of course. He overcame two break points at 15-40 as he served for the match, and the thing threatened to thicken. He did it with an ace up the middle and a driving forehand winner, and soon the whole barrage had come to exemplify one of the essences of why people watch sports: to watch people overcome.